SANAA, (Reuters) – Yemeni tribesmen said they wrested a military compound from elite troops loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh outside the capital Sanaa on Friday as increased fighting threatened to tip the country into civil war.
Yemeni fighter jets could be heard breaking the sound barrier as they swooped over the capital, the scene of fighting between forces loyal to Saleh and the rival Hashed tribe led by Sadeq al-Ahmar, close to the Islamist opposition party Islah.
Tribes outside the capital said they were also fighting government troops at two other military bases.
In Sanaa, tens of thousands of people gathered after Friday prayers for what they said would be a “Friday of Peaceful Revolution” against Saleh, releasing white doves and carrying the coffins of about 30 people killed in clashes this week.
But the turnout for the rally, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, was less than previous weeks with many people fleeing Sanaa and the government closing roads around the capital to keep out tribes trying to reinforce the Ahmars.
Machinegun fire rattled across Sanaa and sporadic explosions were heard near a protest site where thousands of people demanding Saleh’s departure are still camped.
Fighting in Sanaa eased off later on Friday after mediation efforts under which the al-Ahmar tribe evacuated government ministry buildings they had grabbed during clashes this week in return for a cease-fire and troops pulling out from their area.
“We are now in mediation and there has been a cease-fire between the two sides … But if Ali Abdullah Saleh returned (to fighting) then we are ready. We are steadfast and victorious,” Sadeq al-Ahmar told protesters in “Change Square.”
“We wanted it (revolution) to be peaceful but Saleh, his sons and his clique wanted war. We will not leave them the opportunity to turn it into a civil war. There is mediation going on now,” Ahmar told Reuters.
The week-long battles, the worst since unrest erupted in January, have enabled Saleh to grab back the initiative, overshadowing the protest movement with the threat of civil war. But many protesters remained determined to see him out.
“We are here to renew our resolve for a peaceful revolution. We reject violence or being dragged into civil war,”said Yahya Abdulla at the anti-Saleh protest camp, where armed vehicles have been deployed to protect those praying.
A few kilometres (miles) away, government loyalists staged their own rally, waving Yemeni flags and pictures of Saleh, who has ruled the Arabian Peninsula state for nearly 33 years.
“By God, you won’t leave!” some red banners read.
There are increasing worries that Yemen, already a safe haven for al Qaeda and on the verge of financial ruin, could deteriorate into a failed state that would erode regional security and pose a serious risk to its neighbour Saudi Arabia, the world’s No. 1 oil exporter.
The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of foiled attacks by a wing of al Qaeda based in Yemen, are concerned that any spread of anarchy could embolden the global militant group.
BATTLE AT MILITARY COMPOUND
Tribal leader Sheikh Hamid Asim told Reuters fighters killed the commander of the military compound and a separate tribal source said the Yemeni air force dropped bombs to prevent the tribesmen from seizing an arms cache at the site.
Further bombing sorties by the air force could be heard near Sanaa during the course of the day.
If confirmed, the Republican Guard’s loss of a military base to tribesmen armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades would be an embarrassing setback for Saleh, whose security forces have been drawn into pitched street fighting in the capital this week that has killed nearly 100 people.
In Geneva, the U.N. human rights commission said the dangerous surge of violence in Yemen over the past few days was extremely alarming, especially given that the government and the opposition were so close to a power transition agreement.
“We’re deeply concerned that the government may be pushing the country to the brink of a civil war, said commission spokesman Rupert Colville.
Leaders of the G8 leading industrialised nations called on Saleh to step down during their two-day summit in France, but analysts said global powers have little leverage in fractious and isolated Yemen.
At least 100 Yemenis have been killed in Sanaa in four days of fighting since the collapse of an agreement mediated by Gulf Arab neighbours for Saleh to bow to widespread demands to step down after four months of unrest.
FEAR OF CIVIL WARF
Friday prayers have been a rallying point for opponents and supporters of Saleh, whose country has become a the poorest in the region and is located on a shipping lane through which 3 million barrels of oil pass daily to Western markets.
Sanaa residents have been streaming out of the capital by the thousands to escape the escalating violence. Others stocked up on essentials and waited in trepidation.
“There is absolute poverty because of this regime. We want change,” said Abdulrahman al-Fawli, 42, an engineer. “But I’m terrified of civil war. I dread this prospect. God willing, he will leave peacefully and abdicate power peacefully.”
The Yemeni protest movement was born out of the “Arab Spring” that led to the overthrow of the longstanding autocratic leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, and has used social media sites including Facebook and Twitter to rally support.
Ahmar tribal leaders have thrown their weight behind the protesters, but the recent fighting has ignored the commitment to peaceful demonstrations of the protesters, many of whom are sceptical about the methods and vested interests of both sides in the armed conflict.
“Saleh and his forces and the al-Ahmar tribe cannot make the civilian state that the protesters want. They stole the limelight of the revolution and undermined it with their
fighting,” said Ali Mohammed Subaihy, a doctor.
Dozens of armed men believed to be from al Qaeda stormed into the city of Zinjibar in the southern flashpoint province of Abyan, chasing out security forces and setting off blasts in several buildings, residents said.
The army withdrew from Zinjibar after a battle with militants in March, but later regained control.
Saleh has said his removal would be a boon to al Qaeda but the opposition, which includes the Islamist party, accuses him of exploiting militancy to keep his foreign backing and argues that it would be better placed to fight al Qaeda.
“Saleh has even turned terrorism into an investment strategy by amplifying the threat of al Qaeda in Yemen to get more foreign aid,” said Abdel Raqib abdel-Hadi at the protest camp.
The United States, which long treated Saleh as an ally against al Qaeda, also said it now wants him to go.
Saleh said on Wednesday he would not bow to international “dictates” to step down and leave Yemen. His attempts to stop the protests by force have so far killed some 260 people.